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Historic Rulings on Same-Sex Marriage Cases by the U.S. Supreme Court

By Nikki Tishler, SIECUS Federal Policy and Communications Fellow

June 26, 2013 marked a historic day when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on two same-sex marriage cases. In a 5-4 ruling on United States v. Windsor, the court struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) on the grounds of equal protection. Shortly after, the court ruled 5-4 that the defendants in Hollingsworth v. Perry have no standing in the court. Hollingsworth v. Perry considered the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8, “Prop 8,” banning same-sex marriage and the court ruling effectively reinstated legalized same-sex marriage in California.

In United States v. Windsor, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Scalia, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan. The case was brought by Edie Windsor, represented by the ACLU and the law firm Paul Weiss, challenging Section 3 of DOMA which required her to pay $363,000 in estate taxes after her partner and spouse of over 40 years passed away.[1] Had she been in a heterosexual marriage, she would not have had to pay the estate tax.

In the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote:

DOMA singles out a class of persons deemed by a State entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty. It imposes a disability on the class by refusing to acknowledge a status the State finds to be dignified and proper. DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others. The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”[2]

The DOMA ruling provides access to over 1,000 federal benefits for legally married same-sex couples, including veterans’ benefits, family medical leave, tax benefits, and Social Security benefits.[3] At this time, 13 states (including California after the Prop 8 ruling) recognize same-sex marriage, while 35 states have laws or constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. There is still great progress to be made for national marriage equality, but this landmark decision by the Supreme Court will now serve as one of the best defenses for marriage equality at the state level.

In Hollingsworth v. Perry, the case filed on behalf of two same-sex couples in federal district court in May 2009, the Supreme Court returned the case to California, which had previously ruled Prop 8 unconstitutional in both district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. This effectively enables the California officials to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

These rulings signal a major victory for LGBT rights, but there are still many nuances and implementation decisions for the Obama administration to determine in overhauling federal programs involving marriage.

In reference to the DOMA decision, President Obama issued a statement in which he said, “The Supreme Court has righted [a] wrong” and assured that the implementation of federal benefits will occur swiftly and smoothly.[4] Within hours, the effects of overturning DOMA were evident. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel released a statement saying; “the Department of Defense intends to make the same benefits available to all military spouses – regardless of sexual orientation – as soon as possible,”[5] and a New York City immigration judge reportedly stopped the deportation proceedings of a gay Columbian man who is legally married to an American citizen after hearing the ruling.[6]

[1]Human Rights Campaign, “Supreme Court Returns Marriage Equality to California and Strikes Down DOMA,” Press Release (June 26, 2013) accessed June 26, 2013,

[2] United States v. Windsor, 307 U.S. (2013) accessed June 26, 2013,

[3] Stephanie Condon, “Supreme Court Strikes Down Key Part of DOMA, Dismisses Prop. 8 Case,” CBS News (June 26, 2013) accessed June 26, 2013,

[4] The White House, “Statement by the President on the Supreme Court Ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act,” Press Release (June 26, 2013) accessed June 27, 2013,

[5] U.S. Department of Defense, “Statement by Secretary Hagel on DOMA Ruling,” Press Release (June 26, 2013) accessed June 27, 2013,

[6] Esther Yu-Hsi Lee, “Minutes After Supreme Court Strikes Down DOMA, Immigration Judge Stops Deportation of Married Gay Man,” ThinkProgress (June 26, 2013) accessed June 27, 2013,